Published October 26, 2015
Fifty-three year-old Dr. Karen Jaffe is an active doctor, wife and mother of three.
Seven years ago, the Cleveland Heights, Ohio, resident was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
"I was only having some pain in my shoulder, and I went to go see an orthopedic surgeron,” Jaffe said. “He actually did an injection of a steroid, and then my arm started acting funny after that – so for a year I thought it was from the injection, which it turned out not to be."
Jaffe’s case is considered mild, and she takes medication to control the condition. But, being told she had the slow-progressing disease still hit her hard.
"It's a tough diagnosis to have to hear because there's a lot of stigma associated with this disease," Jaffe said.
However, a new kind of treatment is showing a reduction in symptoms for Parkinson’s patients.
Jay Alberts, a neuroscientist and Cleveland Clinic researcher, has conducted several studies with Parkinson’s patients, and the inspiration for his latest trial comes from his passion for biking.
In 2003, Alberts rode a tandem bike across the state of Iowa with a Parkinson's patient from Atlanta, Ga., named Cathy, who said how great she felt when riding.
She told him, “It doesn’t feel like I have Parkinson’s disease.’”
The other thing that made Alberts take notice was when Cathy mentioned her handwriting had improved. Patients with Parkinson’s often develop micrographia, where their handwriting becomes small and illegible.
Cathy showed Alberts a card she wrote on, and Alberts took notice of the “beautiful, very legible, large letters.”
“And, so that was something that sort of triggered us initially to say, ‘What’s going on here?’” Alberts said.
Then in 2006, Alberts rode a tandem bike with another patient, also a doctor, who has a bilateral deep brain stimulation implant to control his Parkinson’s symptoms. As an experiment, he turned it off for their ride.
"It was a 50-mile day, and we rode that first 15 miles, and then we stopped and had a little break,” Alberts said. “And I'll never forget what he said to me. He looked over and said, ‘Where did my tremor go?’ and I said, ‘I don't know, but let's get back on the bike and keep going.’"
This led to a more scientific eight-week tandem bike trial where patients, including Jaffe, rode for 40 minutes, three times a week.
Patients saw a 35 percent improvement in symptoms.
"If you give someone their Parkinson's medication that activates a certain area of the brain or increases blood flow,” Alberts said. “And if you have someone do the forced exercise, you see almost an identical pattern of activation."
Jaffe was able to lower her medication dosage, and she regained motion in her arm.
Other patients said they have regained their sense of smell from bike riding, Alberts said, which is a common side effect of the disease.
The positive effects of bike riding last as long as four hours after exercising, Alberts said.
"For those of us who have Parkinson's, we don't have a cure,” Jaffe said. “I mean, if we can slow the disease or change the outcome, we'll take what we can get. And so I'll be cycling for as long as I have to."